Passive-aggressive men live with internal rage. They spend a lot of time actively denying this fact. They actively avoid conflict, at least directly. Therefore ending a relationship is a major challenge. They may leave the marital home and not return. They'll express no active desire to either return or initiate divorce. They want to be seen as the "nice guy," so this takes maneuvering and mental gymnastics.

This is a personality disorder and living in passive-aggressive relationships can leave you weary. Getting out will not be easy, either.

You may get the silent treatment. While they seek to manipulate and control the situation, to do so overtly would impact their imagined sense of self, and they fear how others might view them, so they wait. And wait. And wait.

Negative Emotions

Passive aggressive people avoid expressing their negative feelings. They have trouble being open and honest about what they truly feel. Expressing their feelings directly feels like giving up power or showing their hand.

A passive-aggressive man lives his life "keeping score" while denying that he's doing so. While he may act passive, passive-aggressive behavior is anything but. It takes energy to withhold one's feelings.

I love you, don't leave me. I'll see you... take care.

It is confusing when a passive-aggressive person professes his love and desire to stay in the relationship but fails to take even minimal action. His actions say: "I want out," while his words say: "Let's work it out."

He can even act sullen or hurt, accusing his partner of "not trying to make the marriage work" when he was the one who actively walked out. He may go for long periods of time in cold silence or chatting exchanges, as if nothing was wrong, after moving hundreds of miles away.

He may act hurt that you hadn't sent a "valuable possession" to him, when he never asked you to do so. He may tell his friends how concerned he is about the impact of "this separation" on his children. He'll leave the impression that you initiated it without mentioning his role. A relationship with a passive-aggressive spouse who wants out is a confusing array of conflicting messages. His actions can be contradictory. He will project feelings and attributions onto you. He'll feign forgetting and repeated procrastination.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive man

He may get angry at you for being angry with him. For example, he might toss out your valuable belongings and then deny he knew you cared about saving them. It doesn't matter how obvious these items are, like irreplaceable childhood photos or gifts from lost loved ones. Instead of a sincere apology, you will get more of the same: rage that he's being "picked on" for something he had "no control over."

Wants you back

Many women report an "on again, off again" series of breakups with the passive-aggressive partner who cries gut-wrenchingly to you about how he's "ruined his life" and "made a big mistake in leaving." If you take him back, you will be shocked at how quickly he returns to "normal."

You will still want to process what went wrong and how you can stop it from happening again. He'll accuse you of "harping" on the past and urge you to "let it go" as "forgiveness is part of every relationship.

Walking out

He will leave you with the job of moving and selling the home, even packing up and shipping his belongings (he has more important things he has to do...), or finding the children a new school.

Meanwhile, he may have already started a new relationship with someone he chooses not to disclose to friends or family. He prefers instead to play the "abandoned spouse."

  • Procrastination
  • Feigned forgetfulness

Flying Monkeys

You may remember in the Wizard of Oz that, the Wicked Witch of the East sent flying monkeys to carry out her commands. A passive-aggressive partner can have his own crew of family and friends (some of them who used to be your friends...) to beg you to come to your senses, take him back, be more considerate with him, or spread lies or gaslight you.

These husbands can maintain a thick social mask. It might be impossible for those who only see this mask to believe it when you explain what you are going through. It becomes difficult to express to others why you need to create distance from him or to explain the continued abuse you feel you've been dealt. Gaslighting, distorted truths, and other destructive but passive-aggressive strategies are often used. You'll be left wondering about your own reality.

The discard

Many passive-aggressive partners with covert narcissistic features reach a disorienting "discard" phase, where they re-write their 10, 20, or even 30-year relationship with you. Now, you were "impossible" to live with or even cruel and abusive. You engaged in repeated affairs, they tell others, while it was they who maintained inappropriate liaisons. They had to leave because "they just couldn't take it anymore." Your sexless marriage is explained by your "lack of affection" for him or your "coldness" rather than his repeated rejection.

He will slant even the "love bombing" stage where you thought you had met the man of your dreams, your "soul mate," and someone who loved you unconditionally. Now he will tell you that he always considered you "fat" or that your voice was "grating." That he "felt bad" for you and felt like he couldn't just end the relationship, so he stayed out of "obligation." He will discuss how "mean" you were to him and how "hurt" you left him over your many years together.

In contrast to you, he will complain, you were the woman who was content to hurt his feelings, he was careful to avoid hurting yours. Now the truth is revealed. He will post his lies on social media, explaining why the divorce was unavoidable. These crushing lies will be shared factually and without emotion. You'll be left heartbroken while he appears unaffected or lectures you about how much you've inconvenienced him by this breakup.

The divorce process

This will be a nightmare you never imagined. The faster you want out, the longer it will last. Regardless of how much you've given over to him, he will be the "baby bird with the broken wing" asking for more. Before the mediation session (which is never a good idea, by the way) he will write to you, telling you how little resources he has to support his children, and asking you to be considerate of that. Later you discover that he bought expensive paintings and furniture for his new condo.


Once the divorce is finalized, regardless of little you ended up with, he will tell you how impoverished he is. He will play games with the child support, but not blatantly so. Check amounts will be reduced by, say 15%, and he'll promise to " make it up next month." Payments will start to become incremental, instead of all at once. If he promises to pay at regular intervals, these will start to vary in unpredictable ways.

You will get an email from him that alternates between rageful, heartbroken, pitiful, flattering or insulting, sometimes in the same email. He will brag on social media about his lavish vacation with the "woman of his dreams," or his trip to Thailand to accept a rarely offered award,  the same week he begs you to reduce the child support amount.

He will try to destroy or claim for himself, everything you've built over your time married to him. If he can't win, he would prefer that you both lose. That includes your children. As the comic book character "Alfred Pennyworth once said: "Some people just like to watch the world burn." If it has to burn, he prefers to be the king of the ashes.

One woman described it as "carefully cultivated chaos," and it is a fitting description. 

How to set boundaries with a passive-aggressive man

Get emotional support 

Seek out objective support. A clinician can listen objectively. Look for this same quality in friends and family. Don't expect your children to be empathetic, as you should assume they will be triangulated into the drama by your ex.

Don't engage

It is usually an eye-opener when I tell clients that their ex isn't interested in the truth, so arguments are fruitless. Their "truth" will change on a dime if they imagine that you are winning an argument, so don't start one.

If you do, you will end up in a whirlwind of "complementing you, indirectly insulting you, and " poor me" rhetoric that will leave you emotionally upset. He'll minimize, distort, degrade and attack you under the guise of "honesty." For example:

"I've always believed in you when no one would take you seriously professionally. Now, this is how you treat me when I told you that I needed a little space. [he never said that...] I never believed that you would desert me this way" [he deserted you.]

The more you struggle to set the record straight, the more you become inextricably involved.

Expect procrastination

Assume you'll be the one to carry out anything that needs to be done, like legally divorcing your partner. Assume he will "forget" to sign papers or "lose" them. They may deliberately forget a deadline or file pleadings to "set the record straight." Expect him to be both quietly bitter and vocal in his belief that he's been "screwed" regardless of the outcome.

Self Care

Recognize that it will likely take you years of complete cut-off before you can begin to heal. You have spent decades having to believe this narcissist's words, and ignore what you watched him do. This creates a terrible alienation inside of you. You have learned not to trust yourself, and instead put your trust in an unworthy partner. 

Rebuilding your sense of self has to happen from the inside out. You will gradually learn to develop a greater trust in your own internal wisdom, and watch what others do, not what they say. You must now sort out your current relationships based upon their capacity to be truthful, reliable, and of true character. You may develop new friendships as you leave behind the flying monkeys. You will know the healing is taking place when you no longer accept excuses like a "bad childhood" or "an unfair break" in an attempt to explain away the chaos those around you have created.

When you begin again to date, you may find these truly "good men" less exciting, and confuse their steadfastness and honesty with being "boring." With your previous relationship with the covert narcissist, your nervous system was constantly on high alert, and you were conditioned by intermittent reinforcement to get crumbs of attention that were so "satisfying" because they hinted at a return to the earlier love-bombing stage, if only you worked harder.

Now alone, you may feel a deep calm and peace, which may first be experienced as "emptiness." You must now begin again, to learn what is sane, what is normal, what is inherent goodness and what is carefully cultivated chaos. His insanely provocative behavior will impact you less and less as you understand his M.O. You will expect anything from him, and not be disappointed. You will learn that he is deep down, not like you. He doesn't share values of honesty, humanity, humility or reliability that you take for granted as a cornerstone of what you stand for. Whether it was 10, 20 or even 30 years with this man, you will learn to forgive yourself for not trusting your gut, and you will become wiser.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Thank you!
    You nailed it! Describes my former relationship to a passive aggressive man perfectly!
    I learned to be true to myself and am now divorced. I was married almost 30 years. It was not an easy decision.
    Fast forward almost 6 years, I’m happy. I look back and am thankful for our beautiful children, and lessons learned. I’m now in a healthy full filling relationship.
    Hope this helps someone reading this! You do have the power to create a better life!

  2. I realized there is nothing another person can do to change a passive-aggressive person's behavior. Some PA people not only avoid expressing their feelings but they also attempt to sabotage others and obstruct progress. I thought if I participated more to the point of doing 70% of a project the PA would appreciate it and recognize I helped them. Instead they looked at their 30% share as being put upon. And they sabotaged the project completely by doing their share so subpar it was difficult to not realize it was sabotage. Now I try to be responsible for me and not gift passive-aggressive people. If a person isn't PA they appreciate that and if I do more than my share they will reciprocate at some point and do more than their share – with a PA person you never get that.

  3. Not only is my husband’s behavior passive-aggressive but it’s also inexplicable. He’ll agree to do something and then leave to do something else. At times we’ve walked out the door together to do yard work and he’ll get in his car and drive away without a word. It leaves me exasperated and hurt. The last time we did yard work I had him agree he would actually be there to participate. It seemed like we were both on the same page and once again he got in his car and drove away. It seems that whatever I want he sabotages.
    He also does the same thing when we paint the interior of our home. We talk about the project, gather all the supplies, and then he leaves as the project is about to begin. Talking to him is useless. I never know when he’s agreeing or covertly disagreeing. When I do 95% of a project he’ll claim “he’s helping me” when he does 5%. The other day I told him he had that backward – I was in fact helping him and not the other way around. I pointed out not many wives paint the interior of homes or do all the landscaping and yard work, so I was helping him. He looked shocked and now is giving me the silent treatment. Yesterday he “helped me out” painting the bathroom in the dark after he removed the light sconces. He refused to use the floor lamp for light. My kids and I were shocked. Needless to say I had to repaint the entire bathroom. He’s a perfectionist in all projects he does for himself so why is he doing this?

    1. I think you have to determine what’s in his heart. Is it love and caring consideration? Or is it anger and hatred? That’s your path forward to determine what’s going on here. If it’s anger and hatred, then narcissistic behavior may be in play. If anger, hatred and narcissism are going on, then your traveling the road to hell. Passive aggressive behavior, imho, is a very damaging behavior for any relationship. At it’s roots is dishonesty. They’re presenting themselves as “a friendly”, while covertly obstructing, sabotaging and or undermining others. They’re utterly devious in this pursuit. It’s surprisingly difficult to recognize this behavior as deliberate covert hostility, because they’re masters of plausible deniability and mind fuck gas lighting. And your own biases are working against you here, because if you are presenting from a position of love, care and constructive supportive partnership, then you won’t want to recognize much less bluntly acknowledge that “this person” is a wolf in sheeps clothing! Once that realization is reached and accepted, the covert undermining behavior becomes much easier to recognize. It was right there in front of your face and you were just unable to see it because you have a healthy helpful, good, honest and caring belief system. You are working towards good outcomes. You have good will and you have love and respect in your heart. That’s your driving force in your actions and plans. They’re not of that mindset at all. It’s usually all about them getting what they want, power and control. If they’re narcissistic, they’re building themselves up by breaking you down. Passive aggression is perfect for that, subversively undermining literally and or psychologically. You are in a relation”shit” that’s not a relationship at all, it’s you being used and abused and played to your detriment and or destruction. You will be confused. You will be anxious. There’s limited sense of partnership because they are just not actually concerned about you. It’s all about them. They’ll be obstructionists. They’ll play the victim. There’ll be mind games and there’ll be gas lighting. There’s nothing loving supportive about these relationships, and you will feel it at your core. They’re just evil.

  4. I’ve been married to my passive-aggressive husband for nearly 30 years. I’m honestly completely drained. I appreciate what you have shared here so much. I have often wondered about something else that I was wondering if it relates, and if so, if you could touch on it. My husband expected me to work our whole marriage, would not plan vacations or save money, always spending money on deals, would not work enough so I could be home with the kids. We really don’t have a lot in common anymore. I’m a teacher and I’ve worked three jobs at times because he didn’t make enough to even handle a fourth of the bills. He had us go through bankruptcy twice, had me pull my retirement, we lost a home to foreclosure, and I’m wondering, is all this related to his passive-aggressive behavior? I finally said enough. I am now taking charge. As the wife it’s been a very difficult decision. I want to be respectful. But I am now taking control of my paychecks to get back on track. It’s never too late, so I’m trying.

    1. So here is what you’re saying, Tina: Your husband expected you to work without a vacation. He spends the money you earn and drives you into bankruptcy on multiple occasions. He’s drained your retirement. Tina, I can’t put any label on that except emotional abuse. Perhaps you have the option that as a wife, he gets to make those decisions and you’re now re-thinking this perspective. Even the most religious among us is likely to argue that a bad steward shouldn’t be a steward at all. You are straightening out your finances, and that’s a great first step. The second would be to separate your money and to take vacations for your own wellbeing. You may not have a lot in common because you’re described how you’ve been exploited. He’s apparently taking good care of himself. And now you are wondering if it is your turn. Sounds it. Good luck!

  5. Thank you for this post. I have been battling passive aggressiveness in my house for quite some time now, and it is really beginning to effect relationships in my family and I am starting to see passive aggressive behaviors exhibited by my kids. How do you help your partner see their passive aggressive behavior. My husband is completely unaware, and when I try to talk with him about it he completely denies it.

    1. I’m in the same situation, and I’m terrified. I’ve tried everything possible to help him understand; please, can you help me?

  6. This is all excellent information. But, two things, I had an excellent upbringing. My dad and I never disagreed. Most all of the info spelled out Passive/Aggressive has been caused by my present wife of 10 years. I was never like this.

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